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Cornish Sardines in lemon brown butter

Ben’s obsession with all things sardine continues to grow, as evidenced by these Cornish Sardines in lemon brown butter. - Credit: The Sardine Factory

ANDY COOPER discovers that a favourite chef of his is continuing to demonstrate the excellence of his craft in a new location  

I was a guest of the very hospitable bunch who are the directors of Plymouth Albion Rugby Club recently and, once we had sunk a couple of pints ahead of our matchday lunch, the waitress arrived to serve our starter. I took one bite of mine and couldn’t help but blurt out “Wow this is good!” Which was actually shorthand for “Wow, this is, to be totally honest, not what I would expect to be eating by way of pre-match dining.” 

That’s not to be patronising or stuck-up over such’s just that experience has shown catering to 200+ hospitality guests in a temporary setting at a sports ground does not always prove to be the easiest of backdrops to serve amazing food. 

Edge of the harbour wall in the Cornish town of Looe.

The Sardine Factory overlooks the stunning harbour. - Credit: The Sardine Factory

The reply came back from my rugby hosts “Oh, Ben Palmer does our matchday food.” To which my immediate response could well have been to order a season ticket for hospitality at the Albion. Never mind the rugby, I’d go for the food alone. 

That is the genius of Mr Palmer. I have tracked his food journey around the South West over the years like a truffle hound in search of his tubers. Stints as the head chef with the Tanner Brothers in Plymouth, at Glazebrook House Hotel at South Brent and then with his own fabulous restaurant the Greedy Goose in Plymouth had made me a firm fan. 

So, news of Ben’s latest incarnation as chef/proprietor of The Sardine Factory necessitated a trip to Looe. And, having recently visited for lunch with a good pal of mine, it is self-evident that Ben has, literally and figuratively, discovered his spiritual home.  

Ben grew up in Looe and always dreamt of having his own restaurant on the harbour. He spent hours fishing as a little boy, perched outside Fisherman’s Stores, now known as The Sardine Factory, Ben’s restaurant. The building was once a sardine factory used to process and can pilchards straight off the fishing boats in Looe back in the 19th century.  

Ben’s obsession with all things sardine continues to grow, with him becoming known for his infamous Stargazey Pie, just one of the delights on a novel menu which truly makes the most of the location close to some of the finest seafood the local trawler crews can catch. 

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The Sardine Factory has 80 covers overlooking the stunning harbour with a menu reflecting the ethos of Looe and a passion for local seasonal produce, with an abundance of sustainable fish dishes. Ben and his team were delighted to receive the prestigious accolade of a Michelin Bib Gourmand in 2020. 

A chef sitting in a restaurant.

Ben grew up in Looe and always dreamt of having his own restaurant on the harbour. - Credit: The Sardine Factory

The menu on the day we visited offered such delights as Goan spiced whole Seabass, on the bone with saag aloo and onion bhaji, or Cornish crab linguine, chilli, lime, coriander, aged manchego and pangritata. Or how about squid and chorizo red wine ragu, bomba rice and garlic aioli? Just three examples of a chef whose talent is at the top of the tree and is clearly loving life back in his home town. 

Lucky Looe-sers (is that why they are known as?) because they can simply walk up to somewhere the rest of us would gladly travel miles to – that's the pulling power of the terrifically talented Mr Palmer.